By good angels tenanted,
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
Wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute’s well-tunèd law,
Round about a throne where, sitting,
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.
And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate;
(Ah, let us mourn!—for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh—but smile no more.
The Haunted Palace is a poem intentionally riddled with ambiguity. The authorial voice within the verse not only accentuates the multiplicity of its meaning, but reminds the reader, on various occasions, just how unstable the perception of language and symbolism can be. The reader is then tasked with deciphering the various contrasts Poe has created.
The anchoring juxtaposition embedded in the poem is the contrast between the physical and the celestial. Both are subject to prismatic sub-themes that further allow the reader control to its interpretation. The opening line of the poem, “In the greenest of our valleys” (l.1), introduces the concept of the natural, physical earth, with the superlative connoting realness and vividness, and the use of “valleys” summoning of image of two separate entities coming together. Furthermore, the repetition of “[travellers, now, within that]valley” (l.30) suggests the notion of division, and perhaps disorientation, through competing interpretations. It demonstrates ambiguity being utilised as a literary technique, with the reader occupying the role of the “travellers” of not only the physical earth, but of the multiplicity of the verse. Poe also places corporeality within the theme of physicality, and creates an extended metaphor of a human body – “banners yellow, glorious, golden” (l.5) become the hair, “two luminous windows” (l.7) the eyes, “pearl and ruby” (l.16) the teeth and lips, and “blushed and bloomed” (l.27) the skin. Beneath the surface of the physical versus illusionary ambiguity lies another unanswered question as to whether the physical body being described as alive or not; the sombre alliteration of “blushed and bloomed” gives the impression of life, whereas “entombed” connotes imagery of a corpse or death.
The physical element of the poem is in contrast to the celestial interpretation of the poem, and the reader is never privy as to whether the verse describes something concrete or something illusory. The angelic aspect is most conspicuous in the poem: “a troop of echoes…in voices of surpassing beauty” (ll.18-20). Both “echoes” and “surpassing” give the impression of ethereality, and introduces a quasi-spirituality dimension to the poem. The troop of echoes could be representative of the human mind filled with many magical and illusionary thoughts, moving back to the metaphor of the body, but perhaps more significantly, is aesthetically opposite to the rather concrete “greenest of our valleys.” (l.1)
The illusionary extends beyond celestial interference to the delusions that seem to be described by a disapproving God-like figure observing the world. The use of “assailed the monarch’s high estate” (l.23) gives the impression of divine power, but additionally, coupled with “tenanted” (l.2), the emphasis of place and residency embeds the ambiguity of whether the poem is discussing something physically present or not.
However, whilst the focal ambiguity is clearly defined in the poem in terms of physicality and illusory, they are interwoven together to show that the multiplicity is essential to the poem, as symbolised through “the ruler of the realm was seen” (l.13). ‘Realm’[’s] meaning of a physical, geographical area combined with its heavenly connotations reflects that one line can be seen from both perspectives of a person seeking to identify the ruler. The enjambment in each stanza, giving the overall poem a disjointed effect, further illustrates this – the multiple clauses in each sentence gives the illusion of a stream of consciousness with several voices interjecting.
Poe makes continued observations about the ambiguity and elusiveness of meaning through his language choice: “seraph spread” (l.3). Both words are orthographically identical apart from the final letter – Poe’s demonstration that a simple reordering of the same letters that create an entirely different meaning. Additionally, “porphyrogene” (l.11) is a neologism compiled of ‘porphyro’, meaning purple, further derived from ‘porphyria’, which was an inherited ailment common in Ancient Egypt (hence ‘gene’). These combined intricate etymological roots become almost reminiscent of a puzzle, which is further reminiscent of ambiguity and confusion. Compounded with this is the lingering semantic field of music and singing, which suggests the very form of the poem is ambiguous – is it a poem or is it a lyrical composition?
Finally, as the poem changes its diction from “sparkling evermore” (l.17) to “robes to sorrow” (l.22), the once “luminous windows” (l.7) become “red-litten windows” (l.31) – a final reminder to the reader that perceptions can be explored through the act of decipherment, and the poem’s intention is to embed ambiguity that remains open-ended and “rush[es] out forever”. (l.32)